Monday, 16 August 2010

The Assumption Year C

In glossy tourist brochures, Malaysia is pictured as a country that is representative of Asia. You may have come across the tagline and advertisement Malaysia, truly Asiaemblazoned over double-decker buses in London, for example. One of the distinguishing features of our fabulously Asian country is the mix of peoples. However, I cringe each time we speak of Malaysia in terms of Malays, Chinese and Indians because it is a form of patronising arrogance that can only be explained as a blindness peculiar to Peninsular Malaysia. Malaysia is more than Malays, Chinese and Indians because she is also the true indigenous natives or the Orang Asal of the Peninsula, the Sabahans and the Sarawakians of Borneo Malaysia. In fact, the Sabahans and Sarawakians make the Church in Malaysia a Bumiputera Church simply because they make up the larger proportion of Catholics in Malaysia.

Anyway, it is precisely this narrow blindness that Malaysia is Malays, Chinese and Indians that the Solemnity of the Assumption has something to say to. Why? Despite the picture that is painted for all and sundry that everything is hunky-dory in this Asian melting pot of cultures and peoples, all we need is to scratch the surface and beneath the false façade of racial and religious harmony, we discover a debilitating despair and also a collective denial. There is a disquieting despair because the future for freedom and the health of the financial system (politics and economy) does not seem to inspire confidence. Otherwise how to explain the brain haemorrhage? I wrote this homily at 4:30 in the morning and I wanted to describe this cloud of gloom as a kind of malaise, when I realised that I could be opening myself to trouble because some people may jump to the conclusion that I have spoken badly of the Malays when in fact, the word malaise spelt as “malaise” merely described our depressing condition rather than defined a race. If everything were hunky-dory in what we claim to be a functioning democracy, why do we need draconian laws? [1] The point is, we all know that it does not take much to ignite a situation. In fact, it does not take much to lob a Molotov cocktail or an animal’s head into any religious place of worship. There seems to be no future for some people under the Malaysian sun. Here I want to be clear that I am not interested in making a critique of the political or economic system of the country but I am trying to verbalise the hopeless desperation that many of us feel quietly. Tell me that I am wrong but you know that I am not.

Thus, the temerity of the Catholic Church is relevant to our current despair. The point is how audacious we are to celebrate the Assumption on a Sunday, the dies Domini, the day of the Lord? Who is this Mary that even Christ the Lord makes way for her? Crucially, how can she be relevant to what we are feeling inside but dare not express openly?

Let me start by re-telling a nursery rhyme which many of you are familiar with. There are different ways of reciting this rhyme but here is how I would do it. It is called “For want of a nail” or “For lack of a nail”.

For want of a nail, a shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, a horse was lost. For want of a horse, a general was lost. For want of a general, a battle was lost. For want of a battle, a kingdom was lost. All for want of a tiny insignificant nail. All because a tiny nail went a-missing.

The rhyme illustrates for us that small things can have significant consequences. In the economy or the history of salvation, Mary is that tiny insignificant nail. But, here is the twist. She may be the insignificant nail but the story is not about the nail but rather about how God uses the nail to prevail against evil.

Look at the 1st Reading. On one level, it speaks of the past. It points to the rescue of Israel from the forces of the great Pharaoh and the mighty Egyptian army. The imagery is poignant because here you have the woman given a pair of wings, reminiscent of what God said, “I will give you eagle’s wing”. And where does she flee to? The desert. The desert brings the reader back to the past event of the Exodus. But, on another level, the reader is brought into the present Roman Empire which does not think twice when she snuffs out kingdoms along her conquering march. No one in the known world of the Evangelist could withstand the power of this Empire. The past and the present point to the future. For, history has proven that this tiny little ostracised Jewish sect was to be the downfall of the empire. Christianity was to conquer the Roman Empire—not by force but by conviction.

The Assumption is definitely a reminder that in the schema of God’s plan, there is a future. We call it the Resurrection. Death is not a sign of defeat but rather God, by the death of His Son, has prevailed over darkness. And it all started with a tiny and insignificant nail. The proof is found in the Gospel. There, you find a young woman, in danger of being stoned to death for adultery, audaciously singing the Magnificat extolling the great deeds of the God who saves. The Magnificat is both a promise of the future and a hope for the present. We can only arrive at the future when we live in the present. But, unfortunately, in the current climate of despair, we either fear the future or we live in the past. When we have no faith in the future, it is possible that we are struggling to believe the Resurrection. Many people question what could possibly come out of the present. And the usual response is either we cling to the nostalgic past [like the honk of the “roti- man" (bread-seller), according to a Deejay] or we languish in the pessimistic present.

According to the 2nd Reading, the Assumption points towards the future fulfilment of a pledge and yet it is grounded in the hopeful present that even though the evil and corruption that surround us may seem insurmountable, we are assured that Christ is even more powerful and He has prevailed. Therefore, the Assumption is not irrelevant. Instead it offers us consoling hope in our present pessimism. We may be small nails but Mary shows us that God can make something out of nothing. It just means that we must dare to sing the Magnificat for “He has shown the power of His arm. He has routed the proud of heart. He has pulled down princes from their thrones and exalted” the lowly insignificant nail.

Later, after the Profession of Faith, you will sing the offertory hymn. Listen to the words as they point us out as insignificant nails but really, the hymn is a faint echo of the Magnificat as it extols what God can do even if we are small and insignificant.

[1] Like a neighbouring country where people are “law-abiding”. The truth is that they are only law abiding in as much as there are fines for every minor infraction of the law. Plato gives a cynical explanation of why people are just, that is, why people keep the law. He says, “Justice is for those who have no courage to be unjust”.